The Metropolitan Transportation Authority spent nearly twice as much on consultants for the Second Avenue Subway as it did to actually dig the tunnel from 63rd to 96th streets, a damning new assessment revealed Monday.
The 400-page report from researchers at New York University also revealed that the MTA’s failure to properly supervise the outside firms allowed costs to spiral in other key ways: contractors and unions overstaffed the project, dug caverns for platforms that were double the necessary size and drew up station designs so bespoke that each of the three new stops has escalators made by a different manufacturer.
The analysis is important to straphangers because the transit behemoth’s inability to complete projects on time and on budget ultimately leads to higher fares and taxes — as it also takes away from service upgrades and long-promised improvements are scaled back or canceled to free up cash.
“Other places in the world – in Madrid, in four years, they built 80 miles of subway,” said Eric Goldwyn, one of the authors of the report. “We’ve built just a mile.
“We’re doing dramatically less and spending dramatically more, so future projects are in peril,” he added. “With Phase 2 [of the Second Avenue Subway], they’re still trying to get all the funding together.”
The MTA now has more than $40 billion in debt on its books and spends more than $3 billion annually making payments on those bonds.
Goldwyn and his colleagues used the first phase Second Avenue Subway – the most expensive subway project in the world at the time – as the case study to examine how the MTA builds.
They compared it to other major cities around the globe — including London, Paris, Rome, Stockholm and Istanbul — construct new transit lines and do so for a fraction of the cost.
They found that, among its global peers, the MTA is uniquely dependent on consultants and contractors to design, engineer and manage projects. It then fails to properly oversee the hired help, allowing projects to balloon in size and get bogged down in delays.
The Second Avenue line was supposed to be the first major expansion of the New York City subway in generations — stretching from Hanover Square in the Financial District all the way to 125th Street in East Harlem.
So far, the MTA has built just the first leg through the Upper East Side and spent $4.5 billion in the process.
Three quarters of that, $3.8 billion was spent on the design, engineering and construction of the tunnel: $655 million went to consultants and outside firms; just $378 million was spent boring the tunnel itself from 63rd Street to 96th Street.
That’s double the 5 to 10 percent that transit authorities across Europe — whether in Paris, Rome or Madrid — spend on engineering and designing projects.
European transit agencies perform the bulk of their project design, engineering and construction management with white-collar agency staff instead of relying on outside entities. And when they hire outside firms, they keep them on a short leash.
Boston took a page from the European playbook when it rebooted a flailing project to dramatically expand its tram system – the Green Line – after costs soared and deadlines were repeatedly blown.
Its transit authority hired a dedicated team to oversee the consultants full-time. Officials and contractors there told the NYU researchers the new team was essential to keeping the overhauled program on track and speeding up decision-making when problems arose.
In New York, the MTA has further embraced outside firms as it tries to better control costs. The new system, known as design-build, puts one company in charge of designing, engineering and building the project.
The researchers say the switchover has had the opposite effect and pushed costs even higher, as the firm’s protect their bottom lines from potential increased risk.
Every subway project the MTA has built over the last 20 years has shattered the previous world record it set in terms of cost:
- The 7-train extension to Hudson Yards cost $2.4 billion and officials abandoned plans to build a station at 42nd Street and 10th Avenue to contain costs.
- The $4.5 billion Second Avenue Subway’s first phase through the Upper East Side was even more expensive on a per mile basis.
- The second phase of the Second Avenue Subway through East Harlem is expected to cost $6 billion, twice as much as the first leg on a per mile basis.
Additionally, the NYU review of the Second Avenue Subway revealed a litany of other factors — including design decisions — that drove costs skyward.
Each of the three new stations have platforms that are roughly 600 feet long, but contractors dug out twice as much space at the 86th and 96th Street stations to fit the station mechanicals, provide staff changing rooms and office space.
European transit agencies typically fit the mechanicals above the station to save money, but New York takes that space for sprawling mezzanines that typically run the full length of the station.
MTA officials have said they need the mezzanines to speed station evacuation in case of fires in the stations, but Spain and Turkey both have nearly identical fire codes and forgo the extraordinary expense that comes with all the extra digging.
In Europe, transit agencies have standardized the designs of their stations to cut down on engineering costs, speed construction and to make upkeep and repairs easier and cheaper.
However, each of the three new stations built as part of the Second Avenue Subway features unique designs and components, with little shared between them. Different companies built the escalators for each station.
“The Second Avenue Subway is delivering tremendous benefits and value for New York and is more cost-effective per rider than comparable projects in other cities,” said MTA spokesman Sean Butler.
“That project was planned and built under different management and the MTA has successfully improved project delivery since the creation of the MTA Construction and Development agency in 2019.”